It’s difficult to watch the documentary film, “I Learn America,” without feeling profound admiration for the five resilient high school students whose stories it tells—and without gaining a new appreciation for what it means to be an immigrant teenager in 21st century America.
“Being different is like a part-time job,” says Sandra Staniszewski, currently a BMCC multimedia arts major and one of the five students profiled in the film. “You are half yourself and half the time you try to be someone better for the people to show how you want to be. What I want to be is myself.”
Born and raised in Poland, Sandra emigrated to the U.S. with her older brother in 2009. “My mom had come here often to work and earn money to send back home,” she says. “It was important to her that my brother and I stay in Poland and complete our schooling.”
Later, her father emigrated to the U.S., and for the next six months sister and brother looked after themselves. “It was stressful,” Sandra says. “I had a tough time staying focused on my studies.”
Coming to America
After joining her parents in New York, Sandra was enrolled in eighth grade at a school in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section. “All I heard there was Polish,” she recalls. “I felt I’d never learn to speak English.” The following year, she transferred to Lafayette High School. She couldn’t have made a better choice.
Dedicated to serving newly-arrived immigrants, the International School at Lafayette had more than 300 students from over 50 countries, speaking more than 50 languages. “I really wanted to meet people, but language was a barrier,” Sandra says. “English is hard to learn, and when you’re a teenager, just fitting into a new, unfamiliar environment is stressful.”
It was the school’s rich cultural diversity that made all the difference. “I met kids from all over the world who had faced the same challenges I was dealing with,” Sandra says. “We all became comfortable with each other.”
Getting it on film
Not surprisingly, when filmmaker Jean-Michel Dissard set out to make a documentary about a year in the life of five immigrant high school students, he chose Lafayette as his focal point.
“Jean Michel didn’t choose the five students in the film,” says Sandra. “The students chose him. He spent a lot of time walking around with his camera, and as he did, about 20 kids, including me, started following him.”
Dissard encouraged the students to ask questions; later he interviewed them individually, drawing out their stories. “Eventually, the group came down to the five you see in the movie,” says Sandra. The four others are from Myanmar, Guatemala, Pakistan and the Dominican Republic.
Dissard’s intent had been to provide a way for Sandra and her classmates to tell their stories. “But he realized the film could do much more—and perhaps even help change attitudes and laws,” Sandra says. Last year, “I Learn America” was screened for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
“We were very nervous, since we didn’t know how people would react,” says Sandra. “But it was crucial that this film be seen by lawmakers and other government officials, and that they understand the realities of young immigrant life in this country.”
For many, she notes, emigration is not a choice but a mandate. “They came because they had to—because their parents were here, or they had lost their families back home, or for other compelling reasons.”
Many came at great personal sacrifice—or personal risk. Brandon, one of the five in the film, journeyed alone from Guatemala to America to reunite with his mother, crossing the desert by himself.
Since its initial screening, “I Learn America” has been seen by audiences at schools, theaters and other venues throughout the U.S. and Europe and generated tremendous excitement and encouragement.
The students often tour with it, interacting with local people and, in some cases, leading workshops for immigrant children. Recently, the film was shown at the Nantucket Film Festival.
It was during the making of “I Learn America” that Sandra received her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), extending her permission to live and study in the U.S. for two years. After graduating from Lafayette, she began her studies at BMCC in 2012.
“My teachers in the Media Arts and Technology department have been incredibly caring and supportive,” she says. “Professor Jody Culkin has been especially helpful, and has always been open to new ideas.”
Sandra expects to graduate from BMCC in 2016 and continue her studies at a senior college. She’ll renew her DACA for another two years—but by then, perhaps, the Dream Act, which would grant permanent residency to young immigrants like herself, will have become law as the nation gains a deeper and better informed appreciation of the immigrant teenager experience.
“In making “I Learn America,” we started out telling five separate stories, but it’s really one story,” she says. “And the struggle of immigrant children today is everyone’s struggle.”
Editor’s Note: Sandra’s inseparable classmate at Lafayette High School, Jennifer, who is from the Dominican Republic, also attends BMCC.